by Gillian Clarke
Q Is the story true?
A Yes. If a poem uses the poet’s own voice, and tells a story from his or her own viewpoint, it is true. The point of view, the personal voice, the place names, the reference to an inquest, the precise description, all tell you it is fact. Sometimes a poet takes the viewpoint of a character, not his or her self. Then the poet uses imagination.
Q What happened?
A It’s all in the poem. On a beautiful morning in the longest, hottest summer I ever remember, a 20 year old motor cyclist was killed in a collision with a milk tanker. His fiancee was saved. It happened 50 metres from my house, in the quiet countryside.
Q What does ‘stigmata’ mean?
A It’s the wound made by nails in the hands and feet of Jesus when he was crucified.
Q Why do you say the road ‘has kept its stigmata of dust and barley seed’?
A It was the ‘summer of the long drought, 1976 - there was no significant rain for about 9 months, from January to September - so there was not a stream, pond or puddle for the policeman to get water to wash the blood and oil from the road. He gathered handfuls of barley and earth from the field, and threw it onto the mess on the road. There was no rain for several more months, so the stain remained on the road, like the scar of the stigmata that won’t heal.
Q Does ‘a mains hum only, no message coning through’ refer to an emergency phone call?
A If you put the three lines together, you will notice that the image connects the pulse with the radio message. ‘His pulse dangerous in my hands/ A mains hum only, no message/ Coming through’. I was thinking of the mains hum on a radio after the station has closed down. His pulse is beating still, but his brain is dead. However, I can see it might also make you think of a phone call, so that’s a good idea too.
Q Why do you call it ‘Last Rites’?
A The image is a priest giving the last rites of the church to a dying person. All I could do was cover him with a blanket, and wait by his side until the emergency services arrived.
Q Who is ‘his cariad’?
A His fiancee. It’s a Welsh word for a person you love.
Q Does ‘his blood on my hands’ mean you felt guilty?
A Yes. His real blood was on my hands, but we all feel guilty at being alive when someone else dies in tragic circumstances.